Place your faith, for a moment, in the perfect holy trinity: The rock. The paper. The scissors.
One guy is walking around at the D.C. National Rock Paper Scissors tournament Saturday night with a T-shirt that provocatively asserts, "Paper is the new rock." He lost.
Every strategy of rock-paper-scissors (aka RPS, or roshambo) was tried in this, the area's first official tournament of a game so ancient, so primal, that of course you now have to play it while drunk, in bars.
RPS has gone a little bit MTV, and that's why 128 Washington area contestants and their sweaty fans are shoehorned into the upstairs bar of the DC9 nightclub off U Street NW for some high-stakes, high-octane "throw."
For the rusty, let's review: Rock smashes scissors. Scissors cut paper. Paper covers rock. What else in life do you need to know?
"There can be no argument," says Will Healy, a 36-year-old consultant, and this appears to be the cornerstone of rock-paper-scissors devotion -- it is sometimes the only way to settle life's disputes or make a decision. "If you lose, you lose, and everyone agrees on this. . . . It's totally meaningless, but you can start to take it totally serious. You can make believe that you're affecting the outcome, and that you're outsmarting the other [person], and in fact, you do believe it."
Healy is sitting in the back of the bar with his wife, Camella Bailey, 39; they are trying to keep away from most of the cigarette smoke, especially because she's pregnant with their second child. They hired a sitter for their 2-year-old because, well, a significant, if mundane, part of their married life has been settled by RPS, and they consider themselves to be professional-level players of the game:
Who has to take out the trash? (1-2-3, RPS.) Who has to get up when the baby's crying? (1-2-3.) The answer is determined after three "primes," the 1-2-3-throw of traditional roshambo.
"Sometimes we RPS just to decide what we're going to RPS about," Healy says.
These are exactly the kind of people who heard the call of Saturday night's tournament, a phenomenon so new that there really is no national title; competition was open to the first 128 people with six bucks for the entry fee. (Although the event was billed as "national," well, this is a sports movement still in its infancy. Wanna compete at the international level, at the annual RPS tournament in Toronto in October? Then go. Nothing's stopping you; but prepare to be humiliated by guys who call themselves "master" -- as in Master Pete, or Master Awesomer-Than-You -- and wear mullet wigs or Union Jack kilts.)
"When resources are scarce, that's when you have to turn to RPS," says Patrick Bracken, 26, who, as it happens, has a day job as a consultant for settling labor disputes. "The last beer in the fridge. Where are we going out tonight. Who has to drive. These are the kinds of things that RPS was made for."
Bracken belongs to a rock-paper-scissors team of six of his friends, calling themselves the DC Gambit. (They went "pro," it appears, after a hazy weekend in Las Vegas in March.) Right now the men of DC Gambit are too busy for a formal interview because they are screaming insults at a possible opponent: a tiny woman in a black tank top and tight jeans, brandishing a cigarette and Yuengling beer, wearing a pink feather boa. She is yelling at them about what wimps they are, how they can't possibly out-RPS her and her friends.
As burgeoning sports go, rock-paper-scissors has at least this going for it: It embraces and encourages inebriated trash-talking among its competitors.
The rise of RPS is a little like when adults started forming kickball or dodgeball leagues a few years ago. Or the annual air-guitar championship held every summer in Finland. Now comes the commodification and officializing of rock-paper-scissors, a game many people learn from an older sibling on a long car trip. There's a documentary film being made about RPS and, in October, there'll be a book -- "The Official Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide."
Jason Simmons, a fast-talking, shaved-headed 33-year-old body-piercing artist at Fatty's Custom Tattooz in Dupont Circle, is the director and emcee of the Washington competition, but it's better to just call him Master Roshambolla. He usually competes wearing a conical bamboo peasant's hat. (For some reason, the World RPS Society adores the imagery of mid-century Soviet and Maoist poster art, and mimics it in its logos and advertising, with all those raised fists united.)
Two nights before the event, Master Roshambolla told some of his acolytes (and three reporters) that he's retiring from competition and would only serve to guide others now, help them train and learn the intricacies of "the holy three." He placed fifth at Toronto last year, and "it's taken me as far as I can go with it for now," he says. What he'd really like is to become an expert commentator when the cable TV sports world finally comes to its senses and begins airing RPS tournaments.
The master has written extensively on the strategies employed in rock-paper-scissors (there are eight essential "gambits," with nicknames like "fistful of dollars," which is rock-paper-paper, or "paper dolls," which is paper-scissors-scissors, or the time-tested "avalanche," where you throw three rocks in a row), and he sort of winks when questioned on the randomness of the game.
Hard-core RPS-ers say they spend years developing strategies to read and predict their opponents. Others rely on the Strategy of No Strategy. All of them inevitably get their butts kicked by the frighteningly gifted bar patron who competes on a lark. Usually this is a woman, and usually she is half their size, and usually she's had one beer and her friends talked her into entering.
Outcomes upon outcomes -- this is both the zen and the madness of RPS.
A millennium or two of mankind's steadfast attempt to crack the code of Sicilian reasoning, and we're still no closer to figuring it out. In the two-plus hours of Saturday's competition, there is obsession, screaming and controversy over split-second calls, where one person threw faster than the other, or not fast enough, or out of sync. There are disqualified amateurs who keep throwing the extremely unsportsmanlike "vertical paper" (paper that is sideways, like a handshake, instead of proper, horizontal paper, like a bongo slap).
The refs admonish the crowd that there can be no subverting of the paradigms, no throws of surprise weaponry -- that means no sticks of dynamite (an index finger), no Spocks (fingers parted in a V), no bombs (a thumbs-up rock), no hook-'em horns (a Texas affliction, a close relative of the universal sign for love, or the salute of headbangers).
"Humility is the key," says Kevin Lenaburg, 27, who was among the first players to flame out of the competition, despite the fact that he trained for weeks, and even had a nifty red-white-and-blue sweatband on his wrist. "Some people go all ego. I think it's about humility." But look at him now.
Same goes for David Hess, 26, another fast loser: "It's a tragedy. Your entire professional season begins and ends in five minutes," he says, vowing to embark on a year of intensive RPS training. His competitor -- "some woman," he jokes -- went to the semifinal round of 16 players, "so at least I can feel good about that."
By the time they've got it down to eight, then four, players, the DJ has cued up "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor. The crowd has screamed joyful obscenities at the players and at one another; they've even taunted one competitor because he looks too Washington: "Pleat-ed pants! Pleat-ed Pants!" they shout, and you realize they're perhaps rooting for him, not mocking him.
Up onstage, just before the final round, Sharon Dansereau, 30, looks a little bewildered to be here at all. How did this happen? Why me? Ah, Sharon: It's Sicilian reasoning. It's you in a wonderful twist of fate. "You and you," the ref says, to Dansereau and her final adversary, Mike Blaisdell, 24, a tall guy in a Red Sox shirt. It's close, but she smokes him.
After a night of testosterone and men taking off their shirts to show their tattoos, in all that sweat and cussing, it came down to the steely resolve of a woman in khaki pants and a burgundy T-shirt, wearing librarian specs and her hair in a ponytail. You would never have picked her out as a potential RPS powerhouse. But Master Roshambolla would have: "Every time," he sighs, recalling his many defeats at the hands (or fists) of unassuming women, who, he says, always open with scissors. ("Why do women always open with scissors?" he wonders. "Maybe it's a Freudian thing.")
Fans and a documentary film crew descend on Dansereau -- the new, momentary celebrity. She gets $1,000 and can go to the Toronto tournament, if she wants to.
But she says she's on her way to Albania. Her ambivalence about all this is quite a strategy: pretending not to care. As a fake-out move, it totally rocks. (Or maybe it papers.)